The state's largest teachers union Wednesday fired an early salvo in contract negotiations, serving notice that it wouldn't accept pay cuts easily and that it won't consider linking teacher evaluations to student test scores in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The afternoon news conference, at union headquarters in Koreatown, was a familiar exercise in rallying the rank and file. But it also marked a renewed effort to lead the public debate over school reform, coming shortly after L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa labeled United Teachers Los Angeles the primary obstacle to improving schools.
The union "today is setting the record straight," said Vice President Julie Washington, who heads the union's negotiating team and is running for president.
"We are not the villains of education. We are the solution. We are dedicated and care about the children and the community. ... We are going on the record pushing back."
The union contract expires at the end of June, but both the district and the union can reopen the current contract on a few selected issues.
Top union priorities include resisting class-size increases and restoring the five days cut from the current school year through employee furloughs, Washington said. The former would spare teachers from layoffs; the latter would return teacher pay to prior levels. Washington insisted that the underlying goal is to promote the best interests of students and employees.
Washington didn't completely rule out furlough days, but she echoed the union call of past years as she challenged the district to "open its books" and cut out waste and high-priced consultants.
District officials countered that they face a projected $142-million deficit for next year -- and that seven furlough days would only make up $97 million.
The nation's second-largest school system already has laid off about 5,000 employees since July 1, 2009, and reduced pay for thousands of others.
The union remained firm on another point: No part of teachers' evaluations should be based on their students' standardized test scores, said treasurer David Goldberg. The union supports using data to improve instruction, he added, and wants to fix a broken teacher evaluation system.
The district wants test scores to count for at least 30% of evaluations through a "value-added" system that measures student improvement, taking into account past performance. Some unions elsewhere have accepted value-added formulas as one measure of teacher effectiveness.
The union also took a swipe at a proposed lawsuit settlement that aims to prevent a school's staff from being decimated by layoffs based on seniority. The union has defended traditional seniority rules.
The best solution would be to avoid having schools staffed with mostly new teachers -- the first to be laid off, said Kirti Baranwal, a teacher at Samuel Gompers Middle School in South L.A. Gompers was among three middle schools especially hard-hit by layoffs.
Baranwal credited the mayor's education team for giving teachers at some schools under its control the freedom to make strides. But she said the mayor was "speaking from a lack of knowledge of what's going on at his own schools."